As Sinatra was to Vegas, he was to Blackpool | Andre Vincent pays tribute to Frank Randle

As Sinatra was to Vegas, he was to Blackpool

Andre Vincent pays tribute to Frank Randle

In the second in his series honouring underrated comedy heroes, stand-up Andre Vincent pays tribute to Frank Randle, mischievous Blackpool icon, but often aggressive off-stage.

‘I’m not polished enough, what thee take me for, a coffin?’

Aristophanes, father of comedy, claimed his duty was to ridicule, challenge and parody all authority through laughter. Between then – 400BC – and now, most comics have seen their role in a similar vein. But for Frank Randle, working in an era when every script had to be inspected by the Lord Chamberlain, his refusal to toe the line saw him emerge as the kind of rebel that typifies a true comedy hero.

As Sinatra was to Vegas, Randle was to Blackpool. The north adored his anarchic, brassy material:’An old pal o’ mine, legs covered with blue veins, he went to a fancy dress as a road map. There was an old girl there, trying all night to find the Great North Road.’ It was always speculated that he could never work south of the Watford Gap due to his regional accent, slang, and characterisation.

Randle also had some personal demons. An average day saw him get through 60 Woodbine cigarettes, and he would regularly guzzle down a crate of Guinness before going on stage. He would often miss his own shows and then roll in the next day as if nothing was amiss. He would sack members of his own company, retrospectively realise their importance during the show, and then re-employ then before the next performance. Randle was volatile, abusive and unstable but was treasured by fans, peers and surprisingly, the media.

Born in Aspul, Lancashire in 1901 to a single parent, Randle’s given name was Arthur Hughes. When his mother eventually married, the young Arthur took the surname of his stepfather, McEvoy, a soldier whose passion for fitness would be influential on the lad. It was said that Frank Randle practised juggling his Indian clubs every day. He also tried his hand at boxing, and in his teens would regularly walk the thirty-odd miles from home to Blackpool, to busk the queues outside the theatres and piers. Randle developed a knockabout Chaplin act which he considered to be a good imitation - until holidaymakers complained and he was chased off the promenade by a local old boatman. Regardless, Randle’s family acknowledged his fascination with the seaside resort, and in 1915 they moved lock, stock and Indian club to Blackpool.

Randle’s first professional engagement soon followed. At fourteen years old, he appeared in a touring show of Charlie Chaplin Mad at the Palace Theatre, and although only taking part in a crowd scene, he was smitten. While his teenage friends took up apprenticeships, Randle held a run of part-time jobs, affording him the freedom to perform whenever stage work materialised. He even took a job as a programme-seller at his beloved Blackpool Winter Gardens.

Randle maintained his fitness obsession by using a local gym: here, he became a proficient acrobat and trampolinist, and in 1918 was invited to join The Three Ernestos. Together with this troupe, Randle performed at the Tower Circus, and over the next ten years worked the halls, theatres and circuses as a fully-fledged tumbler, with such acts as Astley’s Trapeze Troupe and The Bouncing Randles Trampoline Act. It was with this ensemble that he finally settled on the name Frank Randle.

A young, handsome acrobat on the road was an appealing profile, and Randle developed a lengthy list of lovers and illegitimate offspring, including the respected Mancunian artist, Arthur Delaney. Then one night in Wigan, Randle met May Douglas, affectionately known as Queenie, an occasion which turned out to be love at first sight. On May 5, 1928 they were married at the Church of Assumption, Deptford, London.

Randle continued his liaisons with other women throughout the marriage, and despite his infidelities being common knowledge, Queenie remained loyal – as much due to her Catholicism as her enduring love. Randle also claimed to be a devout Catholic: the theatre call-boys who knocked on his dressing room door at two minutes before curtain up would often be told ‘Fuck off, I’m praying.’

Over the next few years, while touring with The Bouncing Randles, he started to introduce more comedy shtick into the act, and to create characters for when performing on the trampoline. One night, the headliner Reg Bolton asked Randle to step in as a front-cloth comic, to cover a lengthy set change.

This appears to have been the first time Randle performed his character The Old Boatman, an impoverished sailor with a boat, touting for customers, to a paying public. ‘I rescues a nanny goat… I’m fond of that hanimal… when I first got it… I ses we’ll keep in’t bedroom… missus says aye… what about the smell… I ses, oh… it’ll have to put up with that.’ It was clearly based on the old sea dog who chased him all those years ago on the Blackpool front.

Randle had a knack for developing characters that felt familiar and were easy for the audience to relate to. In 1922, while taking part in the marathon walk from Blackpool to Manchester, he met an old gent who was to inspire one of his greatest comic turns – an e82-year-old hiker. These comedy personae worked so well with audiences that Randle began to pursue a solo career.

In 1935 Randle joined The Blackpool Tower Company, working for the producer, Jack Taylor, who staged shows at the Central Pier and the Opera House. These were venues that Frank had dreamed of performing in since he was a child, but he was still a bottom-billing comic and had to move from show to show every week. Taylor saw that there was something special about the young comic, and so in March 1936 teamed Randle up with fellow northern comedian, Jimmy James, and sent the pair of them off to the Alhambra Theatre in London’s West End. The show lacked finesse but it was fairly well-received: Taylor was personally very happy with Randle’s performance and offered him second billing to George Formby at the Blackpool Opera House for the summer season show, King Fun.

From the opening night, Randle owned the show. It was clear from the audience’s reaction that he outshone Formby. All the reviews raved about Randle’s contribution, marking his arrival as a top-line entertainer. His upstaging of the legendary Formby was the talk of Blackpool, and included Gracie Fields’ pronouncement ‘Frank Randle is the best comic actor I have ever seen.’ The audience adored the toothless 82-year-old man that they saw on stage, while Randle himself, a young, snappy dresser, was looking for acclaim in his own right.

The volatile and erratic behaviour for which he became known began to develop at this time. A BBC recording of the show was edited down following the intervention of Formby’s wife Beryl, and was aired without Randle’s segments. When Randle made his usual entrance at the next night’s performance, he informed the audience that ‘The BBC in their infinite wisdom has decided to broadcast parts of this wonderful show. However, it appears they believe Formby to be the only star. Therefore, ladies and gentlemen, that being the case, Formby can entertain you all now’ and walked off.

When the show’s Blackpool run was over, Frank Randle took Formby’s place on tour as the headline act. Over the next few years, he added pantomime and summer season work to his repertoire, and when war broke out he joined the Home Guard (having been turned down for active service on medical reasons) and started Blackpool’s first forces entertainment show. The town was booming, and Randle was its biggest draw.

In 1940, The Opera House was due to re-open after two years of refurbishment, with Randle booked for the summer season. Jack Taylor had additionally booked the Band Waggon radio favourites, Arthur Askey and Richard ‘Stinky’ Murdoch, but when Askey heard that Randle was on the bill he declined the contract, fearing the prospect of being outshone. Angling to keep both acts on board, Taylor moved Randle to the South Pier, but Randle wanted his moment in the biggest room in the country. The stalemate ended when Taylor was eventually forced to pay him off without ever performing, with the result that Randle would occasionally turn up at the Opera House stage door, bottle of stout and wages in hand, just to irritate Askey and Taylor.

Randle then decided to take his winter show Home Service Follies out on a summer tour, renamed Home Service Scandals, a title coined simply because it rhymed with Randle, as opposed to an indicator of outrageous content. Theatre managers fought to get a Randle show into their venues over the holiday period because of their assured success. These huge sell-out events also gave Randle the opportunity to set up The Scandals, his stock company of stooges, comics and singers with whom he would collaborate for the rest of his life. While the loss of Randle on the Opera House bill had left Taylor out of pocket and with dwindling audiences, the result was to his long-term advantage: The Blackpool Tower Company were to do very nicely over the forthcoming years from The Scandals.

Randle’s prowess grew and he became the highest-paid performer in the country. The more successful his career, the bawdier his material became, but change was in the air. Early 1943 saw the arrival in Blackpool of Harry Barnes, the new chief constable. Barnes was a staunch churchgoer, with strict Victorian values and he began to enforce outdated by-laws and The Sunday Entertainment Law. He took an instant dislike to Randle and demanded to see all the Scandal scripts that had previously been cleared by the Lord Chamberlain.

Enforcement officers then attended the shows, which would be closed immediately if any performer strayed from the approved script. Exasperated, Taylor met with Barnes, but then chose to terminate Randle’s contract to save his business. The manner in which he did this – by leaving a letter for the comic at the stage door – was particularly cruel. Randle took The Scandals back on the road, working again on his own terms.

The troupe’s itinerary included quite a few stints in Scotland, a country in which English comics legendarily failed. Randle however, was well-received. A reviewer noted: ‘He had everyone laughing – from the lads and lassies who paid two shillings to sit in the ‘gods’ to the Mayor and Mayoress.’

The show also set up a summer residence at the Winter Gardens, Morecambe, with the apparent intention of stealing audiences from the neighbouring resort of Blackpool where Randle still had clout. He remained the only person allowed to moor his yacht (‘Namoura’) at the end of the Blackpool South Pier. He sped around the area in various fast cars, usually drunk. And he could turn up anywhere to grab a laugh - many front-cloth comics would find themselves upstaged by Randle’s face appearing suddenly between the curtains behind them.

The receipt of court orders to face charges of contravening The Theatre Act was also becoming a regular event. Accusations included saying ‘Hell’ while dressed as a vicar; changing the lyrics to The Hallelujah Chorus; and asking ‘Is that King Farouk?’ in a Chinese accent. Randle changed nothing in his act - he simply paid the fines and carried on, for which his audience adored him.

Out among the public on the streets, he was always laughing and joking. Behind closed dressing room doors it was a different story. Any little thing would make him see red and react aggressively. He was known to have taken an axe to the theatre furniture, and to have chased a fellow-performer while firing the Luger that he always kept in his make-up box.

In 1952 and after 16 years away, Frank Randle finally returned to London’s West End, where the producer Jack Hylton booked The Scandals to appear at the Adelphi Theatre on the Strand. Quick to exploit the new medium of television, Hylton ran a stage version of the TV panel game, What’s My Line on the same bill. Randle agreed despite his misgivings, and at 8.45pm on February 4 the curtain opened on a new breed of entertainment: TeleVvariety.

London didn’t think much of it. As the usual laughs were increasingly replaced with tuts and groans, Randle came forward several times to apologise to the audience. Next day’s reviews called the show ‘tasteless and crude’ and ‘woeful and long’, but Randle believed they would improve once his usual crowd were in the auditorium.

Then, two days into the run came a second blow: King George VI died. Theatres initially closed to show respect, but were then subject to sparse tickets sales during the two weeks of lying-in-state. This led to the show’s early closure, which many assumed was due to Randle’s inability to work a London audience. But just a week later he had moved his part of the act to The Metropole, Edgware Road, where its success was measured by the number of police called in to break up the stage door crowds waiting to see Randle.

A week later in Brixton, extra shows were added to accommodate the queues, and then again at The Finsbury Park Empire and The Hackney Empire. A reviewer observed: ‘This tough London audience lapped up everything that Frank offered and they howled for more.’

After years of being on the road, playing damp theatres, and smoking and drinking heavily, Randle contracted tuberculosis and finally died of the disease in 1957. He had lived a life without compromise: punished for his mischievousness, he proved to be a useful scapegoat for the authorities in their pursuit of ‘immoral’ comics.

A unique talent, Randle’s professional skills can today be admired in his ten movies which are accomplished but compliant productions, lacking any sense of the devilry for which he was known. Certainly, it was for the everyday pranks that his fans most admired him.

In the late forties, Randle placed an advertisement in a local paper for a ‘Chauffeur/Bricklayer’. When asked why, he replied ‘Well, he works six days as a chauffeur, so on his day off I drive myself and I can assure you I get so pissed I always knock me front brick wall down when I get home. Monday morning he’s mixing cement.’

Working to his own rules in an age of stringent regulation, Randle is easily Britain’s most tenacious home-grown comic.

Click here to read Andre Vincent’s previous piece, about Mrs Shufflewick.

Published: 10 Dec 2013

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